By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Kentucky Football fans had not created a playbook for this scenario. How do you celebrate at 10-win season?
It was simply a “fly by the seat of your pants” situation. Who would have thought it could happen? How can someone create a game plan for something that hadn’t happened in 41 years? They can’t although it was something to dream about on a sunny fall afternoon when the leaves were starting to change colors and that first frost was on the grass early in the morning. The time of year when the entire college fan base focuses on football. Usually that time of year there is no overlap with basketball or baseball. Just football.
Even better, football in the South. It’s almost like a religion with the “Roll Tide” salutations in Tuscaloosa, the Gator chomp orchestrations in Gainesville and the cowbell’s constant clanging in Starkville. But normally UK fans are shutout of this fanatical experience. Sure, they get to raise their hands and shout and dance in the aisles for the first couple of weeks of the season but after that, oh after that, the Florida Gators appear on the schedule. That usually ends the party like someone throwing cold water on a cat fight. But not this year. Not this September.
It still seems like a dream. Honestly, it’s hard to fathom. A University of Kentucky Football Team beating the Florida Gators, on the road no less, after 31 futile attempts and then going on to win 10 games. Beating rival Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. In a blowout. Beating the mighty Penn State Nittany Lions and Kentucky coaching nemesis James Franklin in a New Year’s Day Bowl. National media attention from all the largest sports media groups.
The thrill of having a First Team All-American Defensive Player of the Year in college football. The opportunity to watch another All-American running back for UK drag would be tacklers down the field on his way to becoming the all-time leading rusher at UK — in three seasons. To see that same player score the third most career touchdowns ever scored in SEC history. A program that couldn’t seem to string together more than two or three wins in a row in the SEC finished third overall — only behind No. 1 ranked College Football Playoff participant Alabama and the fifth ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
Ten wins! Say that slowly. Roll it over in your mind. It doesn’t happen often. In fact it hasn’t happened since 1977. I remember. I was there. It was incredible then and it is incredible now. Back then it was beating traditional powerhouse teams like Penn State and LSU. This time it was beating teams like a No. 10 Florida team that won 10 games and No. 12 Penn State with the opportunity to finish the season ranked as at least a Top 15 team in the nation.
But it wasn’t easy. Along the way the journey took some scary turns that included a last second sack of Gator quarterback Feleipe Franks by Josh Allen in Gainesville that saved the day, a “gut check” win over Vanderbilt that required Benny Snell to drive the entire length of the field one carry at a time for the winning score and a miraculous win at Missouri after a pass interference call in the end zone that resulted in a touchdown throw from Terry Wilson to tight end CJ Conrad on an untimed play. A throw that was laser-like in it’s accuracy to a player that had lobbied to run that play to win the game.
So many wonderful memories. Like watching a UK defense dominate Missouri — one of the best offenses in the country — for the entire second half by creating eight straight “3 and outs” and holding the Tigers to a total of only 49 yards in that second half. Or seeing the Louisville Cardinals crumble under an onslaught of blue and white as UK ran and threw their way to a 56-10 beatdown of the Redbirds in the most lopsided victory of the series in the modern era.
And then the cherry on top. A New Year’s Day Bowl against Penn State. Traditional Big Ten power Penn State. The Penn State that was 9-3 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten.
And as it should be, the game started with a huge play by the defense on special teams shutting down a Penn State fake punt attempt at PSU’s 33-yard line, and ended with Benny Snell carrying the ball six straight times to run down the clock and leave the Nittany Lions with just enough time to run one trick play that was snuffed out by the UK Defense. And when the clock struck 0:00 the blue and white confetti began to fall. The only blue and white there is. UK blue and white. The players danced, shouted and rolled in the confetti on the field. Their Head Coach – Mark Stoops – did an impromptu dance In the locker room along with the players as they celebrated a 10 win season.
It still seems surreal. To think that UK Football could win 10 games out of 13 and beat a highly ranked traditional football powerhouse in a New Year’s Day Bowl Game. The heart always said it could happen but logic immediately butted in and said, “No way!”
The late multi-millionaire Malcolm Forbes once said, “Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.” Forbes must have been a UK Football fan because he hit the nail right on the head. There are very few football programs in the country who have known defeat like the Kentucky Wildcats.
But that just makes the celebration that much “sweeter” and no one appreciates a 10 win season more than the fans that support the Blue and White. From Pikeville to Paducah UK Fans are appreciating one of the “sweetest” seasons of all-time and no matter what happens in the future — win or lose — fans will always remember the year the Kentucky Wildcats conquered the world. Or at least their corner of it.